It has been 50 years since Rachel Carson took on the chemical industry with “Silent Spring,” a book that told how indiscriminate use of pesticides were poisoning not just targeted insects and plants, but fish, wildlife and humans.
“Silent Spring” caused quite a stir when it was published in 1962. To those of us who were around back then, technology was the key to the future. We had faith that we could control nature. We could engineer our way around anything. As for bugs that ate crops and trees, we just sprayed ‘em with harmless chemicals and they went away. Then came this upstart Carson woman, saying we’d been doing it all wrong. According to her, the nice folks that made the chemicals didn’t tell us the whole story. What’s more, she had the gall to accuse our trusted public officials of believing what the chemical folks were telling them.
Taking on the powerful chemical industry was a bold move, especially for a woman. The “Better living through chemistry” folks viciously derided Carson, questioned her credibility and threatened lawsuits. They accused her of being a hysterical zealot, a communist sympathizer and a spinster with an affinity for cats.
They apparently hoped to bash her into obscurity, but they didn’t know Carson.
Rachel Carson had the combined skills and knowledge of a biologist and a nature writer. Born in 1907, she had grown up on a farm in Pennsylvania. She had worked as a marine biologist for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries — later to become the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — at a time when women biologists were rare. As a full-time nature writer in the 1950s, she had written three best-sellers about marine life, which gave her financial security. A thorough and meticulous researcher, Carson was well prepared to face the controversy she had roused.
Responding to public concerns inflamed by “Silent Spring,” President Kennedy asked his Science Advisory Committee to hold hearings on the use of pesticides. Though she was dying of cancer by then, Carson testified at the hearings. The committee’s report of May 15, 1963, largely endorsed what she had written. Quotes from the report:
“Public literature and the experiences of panel members indicate that, until the publication of ‘Silent Spring’ by Rachel Carson, people were generally unaware of the toxicity of pesticides.”
“Precisely because pesticide chemicals are designed to kill or metabolically upset some living target organisms, they are potentially dangerous to other living organisms. Most of them are highly toxic in concentrated amounts, and in unfortunate instances they have caused illness and death of people and wildlife.”
“Approximately 20 million dollars were allocated to pest control programs in 1962, but no funds were provided for concurrent field studies of effects on the environment.”
Following this report, several laws and policies were implemented to control the use of pesticides, particularly DDT, and funds were appropriated for monitoring and enforcement.
Rachel Carson died of cancer on April 14, 1964, but “Silent Spring” lived on. A wakening concern for the environment led to President Richard Nixon signing the Clean Air Act of 1970, the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, and the Clean Water Act of 1972. “Silent Spring” has been widely credited with starting the contemporary global environmental movement.
The overriding theme of “Silent Spring” is the effect of humans on the natural world. Carson made us — or at least some of us — aware that nature is vulnerable. If you’re going to mess with Mother Nature, she was telling us, do so with care.
Les Palmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.